Tropic of Cancer (1970)

tropic of cancer

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 4 out of 10

4-Word Review: Writer living in Paris.

Rip Torn plays author Henry Miller living in Paris during the 1930’s and struggling to find work, shelter and money. He spends his time shoplifting items from food stands while also having sexual conquests with prostitutes and even the wives of his friends.

The film is based on Miller’s landmark novel that was published in France in 1934, but banned in the US until 1961 and even then went through several obscenity  lawsuits, which were finally all dropped in 1964 when the US Supreme Court deemed the book to have artistic merit. The novel, which is considered highly influential and won wide critical acclaim, has an odd mixture of stream-of-consciousness elements as well as autobiographical ones that works well in book form due to Miller’s first person narrative, but fails on the big screen. It was never meant to be made into a movie and director Joseph Strick’s ambitious attempt to make it into one, who just three years earlier tried to do the same thing with James Joyce’s equally unfilmable novel Ulysses seems futile and ridiculous.

The production looks cheap and lacks any type of atmosphere or visual flair. The setting is supposed to be the late 20’s, but it hardly seems like it. The acting is weak particularly by the supporting actresses playing the prostitutes who almost come off like people pulled off the street with no acting training of any kind.

The film’s most notorious claim to fame like with the book was its explicit sexual content that by today’s standards seems quite tepid. There are some nude scenes here and there including seeing actress Ellen Burstyn fully naked from the front, but it adds little. The best stuff is Torn’s voice over-narration describing his character’s sexual fantasies much of which was lifted directly from the novel. This was the first film to ever use the word ‘cunt’ and it gets said frequently. In fact it’s the character’s sexual conversations and the caustic way women get described in them that are the most amusing thing about the movie.

A few other funny moments include Miller having sex with a prostitute while she is also taking care of her sick mother and who would sometimes leave the bed to look in on her and although Miller initially pays the woman for her ‘services’ he eventually steals it back when she is away during one of her trips to her mother’s room. Miller’s roommate Carl (David Baur) has a great scene where he writes love letters to a woman he wants to have sex with and the two finally meet only to have the actual encounter not live up to the fantasy.

This was filmed at the same time as Quiet Days in Clichy, which was also based on the same novel. Both films were made in Paris and Henry Miller would routinely sit-in on the productions, which were done not far from the other. However, despite an admiral attempt the movie comes off as flat and boring and the viewer would be far better off skipping this and reading the source material instead as the only time it ever gels is when it uses text taken directly from the book.

tropic of cancer 2

My Rating: 4 out of 10

Released: February 27, 1970

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated X (Reissued as NC-17)

Director: Joseph Strick

Studio: Paramount

Available: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube

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